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Report on the Gerontological Society of America 61st Annual Scientific Meeting
Resilience in an Aging Society: Risks and Opportunities November 21 – 25 2008; Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, National Harbor, Maryland
The blot on the landscape
The Atrium aka the ‘Truman Show’
Attentive audience ( 8am!!)
At the International Reception
The Hill

Putting you in the picture

The 2008 GSA meeting was held in a newly constructed convention centre on the coast of Maryland (pronounced by all accounts MERLAND) on the river Potomac at its meeting with the states of Virginia and Washington DC.

The Gaylord National Resort is about 6 months old and comprised hotel rooms, a slack handful of bars, restaurants and shops, a pool and fitness centre and a massive conference centre. The principal feature was a large atrium (several floors high, but I didn’t count) with a glass front and ceiling which had colourful fountains and other water features, a huge Christmas tree, a myriad of lights, olde worlde shop fronts and cobbled walkways. Oh yes, and we had artificial snow flurries and Christmas carols one evening, mustn’t forget that. I heard someone describe the area as something out of the Truman Show. 

Its newness meant the grounds were as yet undeveloped, but were potentially very pleasant as they lead down to the river. Outside the resort complex, National Harbor itself is undergoing development and so there were numerous building projects and signs saying ‘opening soon’. The billboards claimed that the site plans to emulate Las Ramblas in Barcelona, with shops, bars, restaurants, clubs in a pedestrian area. I had forgotten my hairbrush and so went in search of a drug store or shop where I could buy one, and thought at the same time I would look for some fresh fruit (affordable breakfast tended to be bagels, muffins, pastries at a kiosk in the resort) and there was absolutely nothing like that out there, just a concrete jungle of empty buildings and car parks. There were a couple of restaurants open on the waterfront, but no ‘bread and butter’ shops.

The development of the site had been extremely contentious, as the area had been designated a region of outstanding beauty, a bird (including the bald eagle) and wildlife sanctuary until Bush gave permission to overturn the environmentalists' objections and build on the banks of the Potomac. Christina Victor and I walked around an adjacent headland and looked back on this ‘blot on the landscape’ with distress.

The Conference

About 4000 delegates attended, although the numbers waned towards the end of the conference as usual. The meeting rooms were pretty full for the first couple of days and the audience lively. As usual, it was hard to choose between concurrently competing sessions, but most of us were pleased with our choices. For the first time at GSA, I attended just about every session (not much sightseeing, you see) and came away buzzing with ideas for research and papers. Although I did of course support my BSG colleagues, I didn’t confine myself to UK presentations; there were so many interesting sessions on the theme of resilience. I particularly enjoyed the poster sessions when I could talk with the researchers one-to-one. I don’t think we attach enough importance to posters, and see them very much as second string presentations. It would be good if we could endow them with the kudos evident at GSA. I suppose it’s because of the biological and medical sciences influence at the conference. Posters are the customary format for these disciplines at many conferences.

The social highlight was a performance by ‘Capitol Steps’ which must be one of the cleverest, funniest, most talented groups of satirists I have ever seen. I suspect some of the US ‘in house’ political humour was lost on the international delegates, but it was certainly enjoyed on every level of sophistication. The recent election was top of the bill, but they covered a wide range of political scenarios and we were laughing for several hours at the recollection of some of the incredibly wicked sketches.

On the last day, there was an opportunity to attend a breakfast meeting on ‘The Hill’. There, we could see all the preparations for the stands for the inauguration of President Barack Obama (I bought a super fridge magnet of him). It was incredible entering the portals of ‘senator country’, just stunning. We passed the office of Senator Edward Kennedy which was quite an experience. The meeting started with a delicious breakfast after which we had speakers from representatives of Senators who are pushing forward legislation for older people. This was followed by presentations from a representative of volunteers who work with older people, IBM (who are involved with active ageing and preparations for retirement) and AARP (who basically have become the political voice of ageing). It was a marvellous experience and I’m so glad I made the effort.

So, the verdict is that the conference was one of the best I have attended in terms of the scientific, social and political content, but the venue was dire. This year, it will be held in Atlanta, Georgia November 18-22. It would be marvellous to have a good BSG presence there and I believe there will be a drug store not too far away from the venue!

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